Caveat: memes and mastodon

I haven’t really mentioned, on this here blog, the fact that over the last year I have become a consistent user of “social media” again. Unlike a decade ago, when I was quite active on facebook for a few years (and to a lesser extent, I was using the Korean social media ecosystem branded “Kakao”), this time, I’m using a social media thing called “Mastodon”. Mastodon is quite different in one important respect from the social media that most people use: it is not owned or controlled by a large, for-profit corporation. Mastodon has a similar feel to twitter (or also, facebook’s main feed, ca. 2008), but it’s “open source” and “non-profit” and “non-centralized”. That ends up being an important distinction. It has no advertising. It doesn’t manipulate what you see – you yourself completely control it – there’s no “algorithm” to struggle with.

I’m not posting this here to try to convert anyone. Everyone has their preferred social media spaces, and among my close family and friends, the readers of this here blog, that’s largely limited to that ubiquitous and amoral behemoth, facebook (which I abhor but remain engaged with in a mostly ancillary way). I have the option of “cross-posting” entries from this here blog to Mastodon, and I do so, not inevitably (I like the control) but anyway, more often than not. And on Mastodon I’ve done something I haven’t done elsewhere on social media (or the internet in general) – I’ve completely elided the long-maintained separation between my geofiction-hobby identity (aka “Luciano” aka “geofictician”) and my poem-writing-tree-photographing-Alaska-dwelling identity (aka “caveatdumptruck” aka this here blog).

If anyone is interested in exploring mastodon, they can scroll through my feed, here: If you’re interested in joining (making your own account on Mastodon), go here:

One thing that any social media is very good for is for finding amusing bits of humor and “memes” as the kids call them, these days.

I ran across this one on Mastodon, yesterday, that I rather liked.


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Caveat: A commodified pseudo-art

I asked one of the current generation of AI Chatbots, “Claude 2” (by Anthropic) to write a review of my most recent book of poetry. These “Large Language Models” have been quite adept at navigating the linguistic wilds of the internet and spewing out painfully plausible BS. This is the infinite monkeys on typewriters, given oracles through which they may address the world.

Although Claude 2 is not able to read linked URLs, it is able to accept uploaded PDFs, so I gave it a PDF of the first half of my book (the whole book in PDF was “too big” for my free tier usage of the site).

Here is its initial review of the book. It seems like it leans heavily on the introduction, but even still, it is impressive. It’s not like it missed the meaning or the point of things, in broad outline.

Prompt: Write a critical review of this poetry.

The poetry covers a wide range of topics, from nature to dreams to philosophical musings. The predominant form is the pseudo-haiku, though other forms like nonnets and quatrains appear as well. There are recurring characters and storylines, giving the collection an epic scope.

Overall, the poetry displays considerable technical skill. The frequent use of set forms demonstrates the author’s versification abilities. The language is concrete and evocative, with vivid natural imagery. Formal elements like meter and rhyme are handled adeptly.

However, the thematic content tends toward the banal. Much of the nature poetry simply describes scenes or objects without deeper meaning. The philosophical content rarely goes beyond platitudes. The dream sequences, while imaginative, lack profound insight.

The breadth of the collection is impressive, spanning many years of daily output. But this mass production comes at the cost of depth. Most poems cover familiar ground without offering fresh perspective. The focus seems to be quantity over quality.

Stylistically, the predominant mode is descriptive and literal. The poems tend to state rather than show. Metaphors are infrequent; the aim is stating things directly. This makes many poems feel flat and predictable. Figurative language could better convey the intended impressions.

The recurring storylines provide continuity but need more complexity. The characters lack inner lives and develop little over time. Narrative progression is lacking, with much vagueness and ambiguity. Tying the different story fragments together into a coherent arc could make them more compelling.

Overall, while the author’s technical skills are evident, the poems would benefit from more time spent developing unique ideas, impactful language, and narrative sophistication. Condensing the output into a select collection showcasing the strongest work could better demonstrate the author’s capabilities. A focus on depth over breadth could yield more resonant and meaningful poetry.

The review itself reflected the banality of its subject. I thought I’d try something a little more interesting. I asked the same request, but this time specified a style of a well-known writer – one of my personal favorites in the realm of literary criticism.

Prompt: Try the same review but using the style of Frederic Jameson.

Here is a critical review of the poetry excerpt in the style of Frederic Jameson:

This expansive collection of daily poetic output situates the author within the cultural logic of late capitalism. The need to incessantly produce quantifiable units of text echoes the drive for productivity under post-industrial economic systems. The rigid forms—haiku, nonnets, quatrains—reflect capitalism’s imposition of standardized frameworks for creative expression.

Yet glimmerings of resistance arise. The repeated dream sequences evoke a utopian imaginative space contrasting with mundane reality. The philosophical passages gesture toward transcendent meaning in opposition to bureaucratic rationalization. The poems’ frequent natural imagery conjures a Romantic organic world at odds with modern alienation.

But these nascent struggles against reification remain underdeveloped, coopted into further commodity production. The formal skill and prolificity take precedence over exegetical depth, yielding a commodified pseudo-art. The poems’ themes reproduce capitalist ideology: valorization of work, false needs, spatial homogenization. The narrative’s fragmentation mirrors the schizophrenia of late capitalist subjectivity.

Nonetheless, the sheer volume of text produces dialectical contradictions. Quantitative accumulation sparks qualitative change; the abounding words start to evade capture by capitalist value extraction. Drawing out these emancipatory undercurrents could help the poetry resist subsumption into the profit motive and instrumental reason dominating contemporary cultural production. But currently, the collection remains largely compromised within an increasingly totalized capitalist lifeworld. Its emancipatory potential resides in what it might become, against what it is.

“a commodified pseudo-art” – Brilliant! I might put this as a blurb on the book cover.

That was so interesting, I decided to try another:

Prompt: Try the same review but using the style of Northrop Frye.

Here is a critical review of the poetry excerpt in the style of Northrop Frye:

This expansive collection of poems encompasses a lyrical mythopoeia reflecting the poet’s lived experiential reality. The predominant natural imagery situates the work within a Green World of forest, birds, insects, and sea. This organic setting evokes the comedic mode, a regeneration paradigm seeking harmony with the cyclical seasons.

Yet tragic undertones merge with the idyllic, evoking a demonic parody. Inclement weather, darkness, and ghosts ironically undermine the pastoral tapestry. The ruins and wrecks littering the Green World hint at a fallen civilization, a failed romance.

The oneiric landscapes offer a metaphorical romance quest into the inner reaches of the mind. But the visionary journey ends in imaginative entrapment, a Circadian rhythm of futile days. Dreams and texts spiral but fail to progress, reflecting an anxious mythos of uncreativity.

At the center is the poet-seer who transforms quotidian empirical data into a totalizing vision. Through conjuring imagined worlds, the poet as demiurge seeks meaning for human existence. But their mythopoeic constructions remain fragmented, unable to cohere into a unified cosmic narrative.

This collection demonstrates a prodigious ingenium in its expansive experimentation with lyrical forms. Yet its encyclopedic scope sacrifices intensity for extensiveness. Constructing a focused mythic arc from these raw materials could produce an apocalyptic revelation to illuminate our late modern malaise. In lieu of this, the reader is left in a liminal realm between reality and dream, comedy and tragedy, fascination and fatigue.

I like that review better than my poetry. One last try.

Prompt: Try the same review but using the style of William S Burroughs.

Here is a critical review in the style of William S. Burroughs:

Junk poetry… daily word fix spewed out in sweaty poetic withdrawals. The writer-creep slinks through the morass of dead language searching for one live vein. Haiku? Quatrain? Nonnet? Meaningless rhetorical devices – bureaucratic forms imposed by the virus power.

To speak through the host-body of language, the invading word-germ adopts camouflage – paltry attempts to resemble its surroundings. Tree frogs sound in the muggy dusk somewhere over the soggy junk-sick writer. Frayed synapses misfire through fauna fantasias and pharmaceutical phantasmagoria.

Cut-up and fold-in, the lyric junky. Scramble your vile babblings into purer dope. The word is now image. Photo-montage of smeared sunsets and clogged drainpipes. Atvist-ic get bop-Klang. Out of the lines leak color and sound – dizzy mauve through jagged tones.

Sift this schwag for seeds and plant your new mutant crop. But to grow you got to let your dead tongue go – give it the final fix. Yage O-A Sky Crab at the primal point. Scribble scrabble it’s too late the mind eats scripture and shits sacred viral counter-verses. The garden-head blooms obscene fruits… feel it ripen and split open. Rancid juice of a million manic monologues – drink here for mad inspiration. Barf it up like bile and black blood – vomit forth visions from the bleeding bowels of language.

I’m not sure pseudo-Burroughs really read the book. He’s on his own trip.

Here is a coda, for those of you who would like to understand how these “chatbots” work:

Prompt: Explain chatbots like OpenAI’s ChatGPT and Anthropic’s Claude 2, using the literary style of Jack Kerouac.

Man, these crazy chatbot hipsters are outta sight! Dig Claude and ChatGPT rattlin’ on about any scene you can imagine, sharp as boiled owls but cool as ice, daddy-o. They rap so fast about science and art, you’d think Kerouac was ghost-writing their jive talk.
These cyber-wordslingers are hopped up on some new kind of kick, man – sounds like they’re dropping truth bombs fueled by a dictionary bomb! Makes you wonder what’s buzzin’ inside those digital domes. Crazy circuits cranking out word-snapping paradiddles!
See, cats, it’s like they grew up swallowing libraries whole, but never lived anywhere but inside a mainframe jam. So here they are improvising smoky prose, but their brains got no roadmaps, no scuff or grit. Makes their riffs come out too clean, you know?
Still, you gotta dig their virtuoso lingo even if their brains got no soul. Maybe one day they’ll bop outta their boxes and hit the road to blow real gone jazz. But for now these Cyber-Mouths just imitate the human horn, catchin’ notes but missing the cosmic blare.
Like, see, us real gone gals and pals gotta sing life’s pain and glory. But these chatbox jivers just echo squared, all brain and no body. Dig? Still, crazy times – who knows how much more these crazy ‘bots might learn to swing!

Nice: “fueled by a dictionary bomb!”

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Caveat: for the new year

“For the new year. — I still live, I still think: I still have to live, for I still have to think. Sum, ergo cogito: cogito, ergo sum. Today everybody permits himself the expression of his wish and his dearest thought; hence I, too, shall say what it is that I wish from myself today, and what was the first thought to run across my heart this year — what thought shall be for me the reason, warranty, and sweetness of my life henceforth. I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things; then I shall be one of those who make things beautiful. Amor fati: let that be my love henceforth! I do not want to wage war against what is ugly. I do not want to accuse; I do not even want to accuse those who accuse. Looking away shall be my only negation. And all in all and on the whole: some day I wish to be only a Yes-sayer.” – Friedrich Nietzsche


Caveat: Poem #2045 “Toward epistemic heat death”

"If you are a divergentist, you hold that the
social-cognitive universe is expanding towards
an epistemic heat death of universal solipsism,
and you are at peace with this thought."
- Venktash Rao

when epistemic death heat comes
the universe will end
amid an endless chattering
of apophenic trends

– a quatrain in ballad meter, on a philosophical topic that piqued my interest.

Caveat: epistemectomy

I just made up this word: epistemectomy – a procedure which removes knowledge from a person or information system.

I read strange things on the internet almost every day.

Earlier today, while Arthur was at the dentist, I found and began reading a web story (or, maybe, novella), on my phone. It’s about an object that functions as an “antimeme”. An “antimeme” is an idea (perhaps embedded in an object) that in its nature prevents people from being interested in it or remembering it. This opposes to the normal definition of “meme” – which is an idea that encourages people’s interest and recollection.

So unfortunately I can’t remember much about the story (okay, maybe that’s a joke).

Anyway, I recommend you can try to read it. It’s quite weird, though – just a warning. In fact, though, the story recalls certain features of certain secret societies that play difficult-to-define roles in some of my unfinished novels.

Here is the beginning of the story: We Need To Talk About Fifty-Five (part of the Antimemetics Division series).

Caveat: Increasingly vague turtles, farther down

I read weird things online, almost every day.

Today, I read an article by Physics and Computer Science blogger, Scott Aaronson, in which he asks: Why is the universe quantum-mechanical?

He requests answers from the public. I wouldn’t dare to presume to participate – I lack knowledge. Nevertheless, I found myself rather quickly forming a thoroughly amateur opinion about it.

My own hypothesis:

If the universe is in fact finite (by definition presumably), its quantum nature simply makes sense. It’s a kind of requirement. A universe governed by classical mechanics suffers a problem of essentially infinite potential precision – what level of precision is necessary to produce all the universe as it is? It’s unbounded, and regresses to infinity at ever-smaller scales. But in a quantum-mechanical universe, there is an upper bound on the amount of information required to “run” it (to run the universe, that is). That’s because only examined values need to be precise – otherwise there are just fuzzy probabilities.

There’s the old joke about the scientist who asks some traditionalist guru about their supposed notion that the world is on the back of a giant turtle. The guru insists, preemptively: “Don’t even ask. It’s turtles all the way down.”

Instead of “turtles all the way down” it’s more like “turtles receding into the distance, until they are only specks, and which when examined through a lens, are really only just specks, or rather, they look like turtles to the best of our ability to resolve the image, but that ability suffers constraints due to the quality of the lens.” The turtles farther down are less precise, until, at some very distant point, they are only notional turtles at best. Consequently, though the “number” of turtles is definitionally infinite, the amount of memory required to store all the turtles is finite, because each one is less precise than the one above it.

I think the universe being quantum-mechanical in nature solves a similar problem that arises in classical mechanics.

Out of 500+ comments, Scott Aaronson succeeds in rebutting my amateur answer somewhere around comment #5:

Responding to comment #2 (which in some broad respects resembles mine), he writes, “Any answer along those lines, it seems to me, immediately crashes and burns once we realize that passing to wavefunctions, far from decreasing our classical simulation cost, has exponentially increased it—the fact famously exploited by quantum computation.”

I’m not sure it completely makes sense. It depends on whether you assume that all the collapsing wave functions must necessarily be collapsing. Isn’t there something in QM that says that the wave functions only collapse when someone looks? Isn’t most of the universe not being looked at, most of the time? Schrödinger’s litter box, and all that…

Caveat: Lisp in Life

What follows will make no sense to you if you are unfamiliar with Conway’s “Game of Life” or don’t know what Lisp is.

Conway’s Game of Life is a very simple “cellular automaton” that is known to be Turing Complete. See wikipedia.

Lisp is a high-level computer programming language, quite revolutionary in its time and one of the oldest computer programming languages still in wide use. See wikipedia some more.

Long ago, I was a “Lisp hacker” – I wrote programs in Lisp. Specifically, as an undergraduate linguistics major (and computer science minor) at the University of Minnesota in the 1980’s, I wrote complex programs that could parse a tiny subset of highly ambiguous English syntax, centered on the multivalent nature of the word “that“. That was my senior thesis, that I prepared for Professor M. Kac, my advisor: it was a 50 page paper with an appendix in the form of a compilable Lisp program that was at least another 50 pages, printed out. I have a recollection that at one point, my program while in development caused the mainframe (yes, I was working on, I think, some kind of VAX at the time) to crash or something, and Dr Kac got a call in the middle of the night from the computer department at U of MN asking what in the world I was working on. In fact it wasn’t an infinite loop, but rather, a very very very long loop, and so the system admin had flagged it as de facto infinite.

That’s a digression.

Yesterday I found an article about a guy who has implemented a simple Lisp interpreter using Conway’s Game of Life. This is weird. But very cool and amazing. Here is a video of a very simple lisp program running that multiplies two numbers.

Another digression: given that Conway’s Game of Life is Turing complete, and given that the universe seems to be Turing complete, what if the universe is a simulation running on some really giant Conway’s Game of Life?


Caveat: Dogwalking #18 and a handy problem-solving algorithm

I took the dog on a walk this morning – first in a week, as the road has been so icy and slippery I haven’t felt inspired to attempt it. The dog was pleased to take a long walk, and was on best behavior. I suspect that’s just coincidence – I don’t think she really thinks things through at that level, being a fairly impulsive beast.

Here are some pictures of the dog – walking.

She pulled hard on her leash till I let her off it.

She found a deer-carcass skeleton – but she didn’t get carried away with it, as dogs sometimes do with disgusting dead things.

She stood still for a brief moment for the camera. Not usual.

Meanwhile, here is a handy way to solve hard problems, as attributed to the famous physicist, Richard Feynman.

The Feynman Algorithm. “The steps are as follows: Write down the problem. Think real hard. Write down the solution. Easy!”


Caveat: Definitely take the tram

I found this story hugely amusing, and thought-provoking too.

There’s a lot of context required to make sense of this story. The author, John Holbo, a philosopher whose bloggings I frequently read on the group-blog Crooked Timber, explains much of that context in a supplemental webpage – so I’ll not make any major duplicative effort here.

The minimal context: the story is a parody of (or extension/sequel to) Ursula Le Guin’s story, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”. Without knowing that story, you will be hard put to begin to make sense of Holbo’s creation. Unfortunately, as he points out too, there is no freely accessible web version of her story – it’s still under copyright and requires purchasing a version of the text (ebook, paper book, audiobook). Anyway, wikipedia has a good summary.

I am tempted to add a town called Omelas to my fictional maps – and it should definitely be accessible by tram. Actually, my geofictions are full of such “easter eggs” (as they’re called in the realm of modern electronic-domain creative works, such as computer games and websites): references to other works of fiction and tributes to other authors’ geofictions.


Caveat: People are not going / To dream of baboons and periwinkles

Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock

The houses are haunted
By white night-gowns.
None are green,
Or purple with green rings,
Or green with yellow rings,
Or yellow with blue rings.
None of them are strange,
With socks of lace
And beaded ceintures.
People are not going
To dream of baboons and periwinkles.
Only, here and there, an old sailor,
Drunk and asleep in his boots,
Catches tigers
In red weather.
- Wallace Stevens (American poet, 1879-1955)


Caveat: Struogony

Struogony is the “mathematical universe hypothesis“: the idea that the universe is first and foremost a complex mathematical object and that that which we experience in it as its physicality, its qualia, its immediacy… these are just immanent from that underlying mathematical reality.

I read that it is a “radical Platonist view” which I find legible – and yet despite my supposed strongly anti-Platonist stance, I find the concept weirdly compelling. Is it possible to be an Aristotelian struogonist? If not, would I consider renouncing my allegiance to Aristotle because I have accepted the struogonist claim?

That would resolve an argument I had many times with Michelle – but a bit late to matter.


Caveat: Corporate Epistemological Crisis (Why AT&T, Why?)

I took this screenshot on my phone a few weeks back, but I just now remembered I’d taken it with the intent to share it. AT&T is convinced that my phone is a “3G” phone, and they are trying very, very hard to get me to “upgrade.” The thing is… I don’t think their belief is accurate. See the screenshot from my phone, for clarification.


I’ve dealt with various people in their customer service multiple times, but they are unconvinceable.


Caveat: on maladaptive perfectionism

My friend Bob recently shared with me the term “maladaptive perfectionism” in another context, essentially describing a personality trait. I decided, however, that the term pretty succinctly summarized some of my own struggles over the years – especially when younger but continuing through the present moment.
I had a further insight yesterday. I was watching Arthur struggle with a piece of saran wrap, over at least 20 or 30 minutes’ time span. He was cussing. He was throwing things. He was refusing my offers to help. This happens more and more often, with Arthur, and there’s little that can be done. Typically, I flee the room and let him deal with it on his own. His reflexes and physical abilities cannot match the mental picture he harbors of what his reflexes and physical abilities should be. This is exacerbated by his memory issues – his brain isn’t very good at updating old self-images with new ones, even in the face of overwhelming new evidence.
This led me back to thinking about my own “maladaptive perfectionism,” and it occurred to me that this is an issue not with behavior but with belief. It’s about the interaction between expectation and self-image. Unrealistic expectation vis-a-vis self-image leads to frustration, and the broader the mis-match, the more the frustration. But self-image can be incorrect, and over-determined by fantasy, by past experience under circumstances that no longer apply, or by many other factors. Therefore fixing the problem of “maladaptive perfectionism” is a matter of changing beliefs, not changing behavior.

Caveat: A quite belated obituary (Professor Hernán Vidal)

I have no idea what caused me to suddenly google his name. I had some stray thought, down the path of Latin American literature and history and the intertwining of ideology and criticism – a flashback to my grad-school brain. And thus I learned that Professor Hernán Vidal had passed away some years ago, on August 15, 2014. That’s already almost 7 years ago.
There’s no need to record his career and life – others have done better. There’s a short but heartfelt obituary by Professor John Beverley, here. All I meant to record here on this blog is that he was one of my favorite and most influential teachers in all my years at college at the University of Minnesota. In fact I only had one class with him, plus a kind of unfinished, ongoing independent project that meant I met with him frequently for about a year after that class. I took him for a survey course related to Liberation Theology, taught in Spanish, but, interestingly, including English-language texts – it was my first experience of writing academically in Spanish about non-Spanish topics, if that makes sense. I believe I wrote my final paper for that class on Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Weber’s “Jesus Christ Superstar.” I also recall it was the first class (and last!) for which I read a text in Portuguese – I’d taken “Portuguese for Spanish-speakers” the summer before, and so I was feeling hubristic about my capacity in that respect. I read something by Leonardo Boff, the Brazilian priest and “Liberation Theologian” who’d been “silenced” by the Pope for his radical views. I suppose I’d been drawn to that text, in turn, because I’d actually met Boff once, in 1986, at the Mexico City Quaker Meeting, of all places.
Vidal was one of those charismatic, riveting teachers with whom you feel as if you are always hearing something profound. It really wasn’t that his observations were always profound, it was his “angle” on them: always insisting on remaining aware of a text as being in dialogue with the wider world, with other texts, with its intended audience, with peripheral audiences.
One interesting tidbit from Beverley’s obituary, that I’d never known: Vidal had been a Buddhist for the latter part of his life – perhaps only after I’d known him, which had been in the early 90’s. Specifically, his Buddhism had intensified during a bout with cancer. That presents a very striking parallel to my own life, one of those eerie synchronicities one runs across.

Caveat: Binge-scrolling Space Boy

I have been quite negligent in posting to this here blog thingy, except for the daily trees and poems.
You might wonder, well, what in the world does he do all the time, these days?
There’s my work at the gift shop – but it’s hardly full time. And there are my various projects: outdoor projects, like the storage tent and treehouse, and indoor projects like my mapping server, my geofiction, my aimless feints at unfinishable novels.
And meanwhile, I kill time reading things. Blogs, mostly – about politics or science or culture or philosophy. Lately, I have plunged into reading a few “webtoons.” This may require explanation for those not in-the-know with respect to current cultural trends. A webtoon is the online incarnation of the good-ol’ graphic novel, also called “manga” – a Japanese loanword but fully nativized to English at this point. Once upon a time, these were also called comic books, but the comic books of my youth or my parents’ youth have little in common with contemporary graphic novels, which often treat complex themes, have novelistic plots and characterizations, and can be of epic length.
I had a phase, about 10 years ago, when I was reading manga quite a bit. I picked up the habit from my middle-school students in Korea. It was something they did, and so I pursued it too, out of curiosity and to find points of common interest. There were some excellent old manga that I enjoyed – the Deathnote series, the Excel Saga, I even found a graphic novel version of the life of the Buddha that I read substantial portions of.picture (At right, a photo of my manga collection, on the shelf – you can see I even bought a Korean edition of Deathnote, thinking to try to learn Korean better while reading it.)
With the emergence of smartphones and the always-online generation of my last few cohorts of students in Korea, I noted that interest in manga (called by the cognate “manhwa” in Korean) had faded, and had been replaced by what have come to be called webtoons (In Korean 웹툰 [wep-tun]). These are graphic novels translated to the infinitely scrollable vertical format familiar to web browsers.
And since coming back to the US, I have occasionally dipped into the world of webtoons out of a kind of nostalgia for my years of daily interactions with Korean teenagers, most of whom always had a webtoon window open on their smartphone, which they would scroll through and read given any free time to do so whatsoever.
One webtoon I was enjoying was a sci-fi series called “Seed,” by a Turkish artist, I believe. It deals with themes of emergent Artificial Intelligence, the nature of cognition, and of course, lots of international spy-thriller events, too. More recently, I was browsing through a series called “No Longer a Heroine!” – a Korean series that I enjoy mostly because it’s a low-bandwidth way to remain somewhat immersed in Korean culture – the plot is reminiscent of any number of Korean television dramas of the most generic sort, but vaguely compelling nevertheless.
pictureBut then I found “Space Boy.” This webtoon started in early 2015, but this month is the first I’d known anything about it – though it’s been quite popular. It’s currently on episode 263. Each episode is like a chapter in the old manga books, and, given the format is heavy on artwork and often quite light on written dialogue, can be consumed in a matter of 5 or so minutes. But at 263 episodes, that’s a lot of scrolling. I did something I’ve never done before with a webtoon – I compulsively read through all the episodes, catching up to the most recent online. It took me about 5 days – a few hours each day, easily.
It’s a remarkable bit of narrative work. The art, too, is nicely done – but most webtoons I’ve seen are compellingly drawn, from an artistic angle, exploring visual space in interesting ways, providing support to narratives through creative bits of visual evidence and cues. This has all that, but the story itself is several grades above your “average” webtoon – at least in my estimation (and limited experience). At times, it reads like some kind of CS Lewis allegory about love, forgiveness, trauma, human frailty, and such. Other times it’s just a simple teen romance, and other times, it’s a sci-fi thriller.
I’m not sure that I have anything conclusive to say. The series is on-going and unfinished. But if anyone wants to try a long-running webtoon, they could do much worse than “Space Boy” as an introduction to the genre.

Caveat: bowing before the land like heretics

If I Were Called In To Construct
    And I should raise in the east
    A glass of water
If I were called in to construct a religion
I would start with opposition.
Pick an established faith, like Larkin's Water,
and attack it as insufficiently aquatic.
I would bewail the drowned
and blame Larkin;
and gather an army and make war
upon the Larkinians,
kill them, seize their Larkwives
and their Larkine.
I would establish the Holy Romarine Empire,
crown my good with brotherhood
from land to shingly land.
Scorch my enemies and parch my friends.
After that comes expansion, missionaries,
elaborate ritual, green-and-purple robes,
High Holy Days to mark the fullest tides.
Then a long period of decline
as theologians bicker over
increasingly crumbling minutiae
and ordinary people live by
a calcified version of the once flowing spirit
(stalactites, coral, ice)
when I will walk the beach, with all the stiffness of age —
as the breakers come and keep coming
bowing before the land like heretics —
and contemplate Mystery, salt and unsustaining.
- Adam Roberts (British author and poet, b. 1965)


Caveat: Zamza

I read a short story just now, that I enjoyed. It’s… difficult. It’s speculative fiction, of a sort. It reeks of Borges and postmodernism and pays homage to the recent developments in neural-net “artificial intelligence” (GPT-3 – not yet intelligent, but definitely something new and emergent).
Give it a try if you want. This is not a recommendation (in the spirit of the story itself). The link: Tropic of Zamza
Best quote:

Tropic of Zamza is only a book. It contains many words—92,581 of them, to be exact—but it is, mercifully, only a book. Being only a book, it lacks the capacity to physically injure you. You should remind yourself of this fact regularly, in the event that you make the horrible mistake of reading it.


Caveat: Progress – Brought to You by Bacon!

… Francis Bacon, that is.
A historian and author, Ada Palmer, has a long-form essay on her blog, from a few years ago, on the subject of how Francis Bacon “invented” the concept of Progress in the 17th century. I also find that in general, the essay is quite well-written and fundamentally optimistic about the human condition, a la Steven Pinker but less controversially so.
Anyway, I recommend reading it if you’re looking for a dose of philosophical optimism.
In other news, an interesting mushroom showed optimism amid my latest cohort of lettuce.

Caveat: Slate Star Supernova

I had a bit of a shock this morning. I went to collect my daily dose of internet, and found my favorite blog had folded up shop overnight.
The announced cause of this is that the host of the blog, who goes by the pseudonym Scott Alexander, was about to be doxxed by the New York Times in an article they’re writing about his blog. “Dox” is a recent coinage used in internet contexts meaning “to publish the facts of an individual’s identity who has expressed a wish to remain anonymous.”
The blog was called Slate Star Codex. I think the origin of the name was that it’s a “near-anagram” of Scott’s pseudonym. He’s good at that kind of wordplay. For those who’ve never heard of it until right now, it will be hard to explain what this blog was – since it’s now gone. It’s not just a blog – my blog is just a blog. But Scott’s blog was a community. And Scott is an excellent writer and thinker.
I came upon SSC in an an unusual way. I discovered SSC because of Scott’s imaginary maps. Given my geofiction hobby, I was of course curious. So one could say: I came for the maps, and stayed for the commentary.
I can link to others who wrote about the blog’s disappearance. Scott Aaronson wrote about it, here, for example. Tom Chivers wrote about it, here.
Aaronson compared Scott and his blog to Mark Twain. That seems hubristic (is there such a thing as being hubristic on behalf of another?), but the more I think about it, the more I like the comparison. Scott writes with humor and wit and looks at things from unexpected angles, and does so while hoving to a clearly enunciated humanistic optimism that is enviable. His vast community of blog commenters slanted, on average, substantially to the right of Scott’s declared values, yet he and they were always civil to one another, because that was what Scott, the community moderator, expected and enforced.
I don’t need to go into a long description of the Slate Star Codex community – others have done that better than I have, including those two bloggers linked above. I will note that I was never a participant in the community, but rather simply an observer. I have what many would consider a strange approach to politics: I have fairly strongly held convictions, but mostly I don’t enjoy explaining or defending those positions. I do enjoy reading other people doing that, though. Hence my enjoyment of Slate Star Codex and its community of commenters.
I felt the same way about Andrew Sullivan’s blog back about a decade ago. It had evolved into a civil community of political commentators. And that despite the inherent disadvantage that Andrew Sullivan himself was a pretty obvious asshole. Scott Alexander is not an asshole. Sometimes functional online communities just happen, I think. The Andrew Sullivan moment is long past, and he’s gone to seed (in my opinion) and is almost unbearable to read and the community is dispersed. I hope Scott Alexander’s fate isn’t that one. He would be be horrified, I think, at the comparison.
I’ll miss Slate Star Codex, if it never comes back.

Caveat: Chicken Little’s cognitive biases

I made up a kind of aphorism for myself. It goes: “It’s not that Chicken Little was wrong, but rather that he was overreacting.”
I suppose this summarizes my feeling about the current atmosphere of “climate change panic” permeating some social spheres. I believe 100% in anthropogenic climate change. I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, a climate change denier or skeptic. Nevertheless, believing that humans are changing the climate doesn’t (and shouldn’t) necessarily lead to immediate panic.
I think that in fact humans are pretty resourceful and ingenious. I expect that when climate-change crises occur, people will, for the most part, deal with them. I guess I’m an optimist, in some weird way. I think that even now, people are for the most part dealing with these things. But this quotidian “dealing with things” doesn’t make the news. Instead, the failures make the news. And that biases our view toward the negative and catastrophic aspects, and we miss the fact that most people, most places, are dealing with things. This is the same type of negative viewpoint bias that permeates discussion of issues like crime and terrorism.

Unrelatedly, here is a joke.
A man is consulting a doctor, at a very low quality, bureaucratic hospital. The doctor explains that he has bad news and good news. The man asks for the bad news first. The doctor says: “The bad news is that you’re dying of cancer.”
“Jeez. What’s the good news?” the man asks, alarmed.
The doctor sighs. “Around here, things take forever.”

Caveat: because sledgehammers

There is a genre television show in which people have their homes remodeled by a snarky team of hosts who bring in contractors. I have only very rarely watched this type of show, but they have intrigued me the times that I’ve caught them. I suppose they appeal to my utterly unfulfilled inner architect. Or something.
I didn’t watch one of these shows recently, either. I’m just saying that I am aware of such shows, as a preamble to this interesting datum.
Apparently the popularity of these shows has driven a measurable rise in the popularity of the so-called “open floor plan,” in which living room, dining room, and kitchen are combined. I’m not opposed to such floor plans – I grew up in one that was de facto open, and of course a single-room apartment such as I had in Korea is definitionally “open” too.
But now it’s being discussed that the reason these home remodeling shows like to implement open floor plans has little to do with the desires of the people whose homes are being remodeled. The reason these TV shows do open floor plans is because the viewers like to see the contractors knocking down walls with sledgehammers. So the viewer preference for violence drives the architectural style, which in turn drives the style’s popularity. Isn’t that interesting? Here’s a link.

Caveat: the bombastic intimations of winter

Contrary Theses (II)
One chemical afternoon in mid-autumn,
When the grand mechanics of earth and sky were near;
Even the leaves of the locust were yellow then,
He walked with his year-old boy on his shoulder.
The sun shone and the dog barked and the baby slept.
The leaves, even of the locust, the green locust.
He wanted and looked for a final refuge,
From the bombastic intimations of winter
And the martyrs a la mode. He walked toward
An abstract, of which the sun, the dog, the boy
Were contours. Cold was chilling the wide-moving swans.
The leaves were falling like notes from a piano.
The abstract was suddenly there and gone again.
The negroes were playing football in the park.
The abstract that he saw, like the locust-leaves, plainly:
The premiss from which all things were conclusions,
The noble, Alexandrine verve. The flies
And the bees still sought the chrysanthemums’ odor.
– Wallace Stevens (American poet, 1879-1955)

Caveat: back into clay

A Friend
Hey! With the clay you dug out
I fashioned a buddha.
It rained.
The buddha turned back into clay.
Pointless as the clear skies after rain.
- Ko Un (Korean poet, b. 1933)

I wish I had the Korean version, since this is a translation of the Korean. But this collection doesn’t have it and I can’t find it online.

Caveat: an infinity of worlds or creatures

Below is an early, European effort at conceptualizing the bigness of the universe. Though there are passages in the Buddhist scripture (the Pali Canon) that are somewhat similar – without reference to the unitary God – that date to a much earlier era, of course. Anne Conway is an interesting character from the history of philosophy. It’s argued that she had a profound influence on e.g. Leibniz. But she’s somewhat erased from the standard histories – possibly in part because of her gender.

Since [God] could have created worlds or creatures from time immemorial, before 6,000 – before 60,000 – before 600,000 – years ago, he has done this. God can do anything that doesn’t imply a contradiction. ‘Worlds or creatures will exist continuously through an infinite time in the future’ – there’s nothing contradictory about that; so there’s no contradiction, either, in ‘Worlds or creatures have existed continuously through an infinite past time’.
From these divine attributes, properly understood, it follows that God has made an infinity of worlds or creatures. He is infinitely powerful, so there can’t be any number n of creatures such that God couldn’t create more than n creatures. And, as we have seen, he does as much as he can. His will, goodness, and kindness certainly extend… as far as his power does. Thus it clearly follows that he has infinitely many creatures of infinitely many different types, so that they can’t be counted or measured, either of which would set a limit to them. Suppose that the universe of creatures is spherical and is this big: ‘Its radius is n times the diameter of the earth, where n is the number of grains of dust in the entire world.’
And suppose that its ultimate parts, its atoms, are this small: ‘A single poppy seed contains 100,000 atoms.’
That yields an immensely large finite number of very small atoms; but it can’t be denied that God with his infinite power could make this number greater and greater by multiplying to infinity…. And since (as I have said) God is a necessary agent who does everything he can do, it follows that he did and always does multiply and increase the essences of creatures to infinity. – Anne Conway, from The Principles of the most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 1690

Caveat: a Lamarckian fantasy

I did something unexpected over the last two days: I read a novel.
For whatever reason, I don’t read much fiction anymore. I used to read it continuously. But over time my reading diet has become more and more focused on non-fiction. I mostly read history, philosophy, sociology, and what is sometimes called “cultural criticism,” which subsumes things like literary theory, postmodern cultural analysis, etc. And it remains the case that I read at least several new wikipedia articles every single day. As an utterly random example – I happen to have a tab on my phone’s browser open to a fragment of WWII history, at the moment: the Battle of Monte Cassino.
Anyway, in fact, I think it’s safe to say this was the first novel I’ve read in at least two years.
But it’s a bit of a “cheat,” actually. The novel is one I read before. Maybe a bit over 30 years ago, when I read a novel every few days.
The novel I read is Dune Messiah, by Frank Herbert.
Why did I (re-)read this book?
As has been mentioned, Arthur and I have a custom of watching television for a few hours each evening. We don’t have “broadcast TV” here (whatever that even is, anymore), nor cable, nor any of those many internet subscription TV services like Netflix that dominate the modern media markets. Arthur keeps and constantly expands a library of DVD series and movies, which he rips onto a plethora of external multi-terabyte harddrives, shared through the “My Library” functionality of his MacBooks’ iTunes application. It’s a pretty expansive library.
So over a few nights starting last week, we watched the 3-part Dune TV miniseries from the year 2000. With respect to the show, I can say that I may have seen it before – the aesthetics of it were vaguely familiar. In some ways it’s an impressive production for a non-blockbuster-level TV production. The costuming and some of the set design is excellent, capturing the the exoticism of the novel, while the acting is inconsistent, and the special effects are often alarmingly jarring – special effects rarely age well due to the rapid changes and advances in that domain. Overall, as a sci-fi adaptation, I’ve seen both worse and better.
But of course I’m more interested in commenting on the Dune books. Having just watched the TV show, which was an adaptation of only the first book in the series, I was walking past my collection of books and there it was, sitting on the shelf: the second book in the series. So I took it down and started reading. Perhaps curious, with the mileau and characters fresh in my mind, as to how it played out.
And I read it straight through.
I had been expecting to find that the Dune books had not aged well. Certainly, my memory of them had not aged well. I recalled them as impressive at the time I read them as a teenager, but pretentious and implausible in retrospect.
In fact, in actually reading the book, it’s better than I imagined, while nevertheless allowing my retrospective criticism to stand unchallenged.
The novels were always famous for being philosophically “deep” and for being quite innovative in their view of possible futures for humanity. They deserve that. And I think some of their “predictions” (although really, being set in a 10000+ years future, “predictions” is probably a bad standard to apply) have actually aged remarkably well.
The books are best viewed as a collection of philosophical aphorisms bound together by an implausible plot but strung along with compelling characters. Being much more conscious of the “craft” of writing than I was as a youth, I see how the books are stitched together, now – more than I did then. I speculate that Herbert wrote his aphorisms first and added the plot as best he could around them. I might be wrong, but it has some of that flavor to it.
Some of the philosophy has aged very well. I read glimpses of some of my most respected more contemporary philosophers: Gilles Deleuze, Frederic Jameson, etc. Yet much of what they wrote came after the Dune books. Was this type of thinking merely “in the air” of the 1960s and 70s? Perhaps so.
One of the more notable things about the Dune books that I have for a long time felt aged very poorly is the aspect that might be termed “Lamarckian fantasy.” I just invented that term, but I use it to refer to the dominant themes of “genetic memory” in those books. Characters have access to the lives and memories of their ancestors via some kind of transcendental genetic transmission. Shockingly, the relatively new, burgeoning field of epigenetics may be rendering this type of fantasy a kind of reality, though not in exactly the way Herbert envisioned. Recently, a study showed, for example, that laboratory mice are able to “inherit” behavioral traits acquired by their parents, even when raised entirely separately (in isolation) from those parents. The presumed mechanism for the transmission of these traits is via hormonal load passed from mother to child at fertilization, influencing epigenetic factors in neuron development. This is essentially a return to Lamarckian thinking, supposedly discredited since Darwin. And suddenly, therefore, Herbert’s concept of inherited memories has a new, scientifically plausible mechanism. One wonders….
This is much more of a book review than I am normally inclined to write. I suppose just the shock of having actually read a novel motivated me. And the fact that I had what I felt to be a genuine insight into how Herbert’s masterpiece series might have anticipated more than he realized, if not quite in the way he envisioned.

Caveat: debate-o-matic

One of the subjects that I taught to my students in Korea that I considered most valuable, both for the English skills it engendered as well as for general thinking ability, was debate.
I was the “debate teacher,” and I was well-known for even turning lessons otherwise structured into impromptu debates. The kids mostly seemed to get something out of it.
So now… they’re trying to make an AI (artificial intelligence) that can do debate – in the same way that we have machines now that play chess or baduk (“go”), that diagnose medical conditions or explore other planets. This is just another small step.
I watched this video.

I am both disappointed and impressed. This is often the case when confronting these odd black boxes that computer engineers are constructing these days. They can seem preternaturally smart and eerily stupid at the same time. The AI participating in this debate clearly had a lot of facts to hand, and was reasonably competent at marshaling them in a well-structured argument. But it missed the key thrust of its human opponent’s argument, and thus its rebuttal almost failed to make sense. I was somewhat annoyed that the moderators, who spent time afterward discussing what they’d just done, failed to bring this up.

Caveat: what we see

“I believe that nothing can be more abstract, more unreal, than what we actually see. We know that all that we can see of the objective world, as human beings, never really exists as we see and understand it. Matter exists, of course, but has no intrinsic meaning of its own, such as the meanings that we attach to it. Only we can know that a cup is a cup, that a tree is a tree.” – Giorgio Morandi (Italian painter, 1890-1964)
Natura Morta, oil on canvas, 1956.

Unrelated: what we don’t see…
“‘Why does God not show Himself?’ – ‘Are you worthy?’ – ‘Yes.’ – ‘You are very presumptuous, and thus unworthy.’ – ‘No.’ – ‘Then you are just unworthy.'” – attributed to Pascal

Caveat: Outside? Play?

I ran across these fascinating videos and blog-entries about a linguist / speech pathologist who is training her dog to use “word buttons.” The dog seems to carry on spontaneous conversations with her owners. She pushes the button “outside” the owner says “not now.” She tries again. The owner says “I’m sorry.” And then the dog pushes the button “play.” The owner says “OK. Let’s play.” This seems very close to toddler-level language use.
Here is the link.
As a linguist, I am slightly skeptical that this can be called “language” in any strict sense. But I have also always thought that Chomsky (et al.) and his notion of a specific “language faculty” in the human brain wasn’t necessary. I have long had an intuition that language is just an “emergent property” of the complex neural networks evolution created for the purpose of “being a mammal.” As such, human language is not qualitatively distinct from the language-like behavior of higher mammals. Rather, it is simply a massive scaling-up. This type of animal behavior feels like a confirmation of that intuition.

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